3 Insights from Serial Social Entrepreneur Nancy Lublin

This post is written by Hannah Ford, a second year Duke MBA candidate, CASE Scholar, and co-chair of the CASE Fellows program.  Prior to Fuqua, Hannah worked with several social impact organizations focused on the arts, and she spent this past summer interning with the American Ballet Theatre.

Earlier this month, I had the incredible opportunity to hear from Nancy Lublin, Founder and CEO of Crisis Text Line. A serial social entrepreneur, Nancy also founded and led Dress for Success. Prior to Crisis Text Line, she led DoSomething.org through a significant organizational turnaround. She is one of several inspiring social impact leaders I have learned from as part of the CASE Executive Speaker Series. Hearing her story, it is no wonder that she has been recognized by Schwab Foundation, the World Economic Forum, and the NonProfit Times, among many others, as a deeply influential social change leader.

Three of the critical lessons Nancy shared with us during her conversation at Fuqua resonated deeply with me as I work to create my own social impact path: know who you are, be solution oriented, and scale your impact (not necessarily your organization).

  1. Know who you are.

Nancy shared her own insight that she is “a war-time CEO.” She thrives in chaotic and high-risk environments. She emphasized the importance of future social impact leaders considering whether they are at their best in times of peace or times of war – no judgements attached. Both types of leaders are important and have a critical role to play, though different roles may be required at different times for different organizations. As my entrepreneurship professor argues, being honest with yourself about your strengths is very difficult. Through the CASE Fellows program, my cohort and I recently took time to assess ourselves through the Gallup Strengths Finder tool. My personal strengths are “achiever; positivity; include; woo; and input.” It’s my job now to think through how these align with “war-time” or “peace-time” scenarios, and I appreciate Nancy’s encouragement to me and others to go through a process of self-understanding in order to find our best places in the social impact ecosystem.

  1. Be solution-oriented.

Nancy also spoke to the importance of maintaining a solution-orientation. She said that social entrepreneurs must be inherent optimists, which is how they stay motivated despite the vast challenges they face. But how does someone maintain this solution orientation?  Nancy shared a number of tactics, including two that stood out to me.

To encourage a culture of innovation around solutions, Crisis Text Line hosts a “Fail Fest” every six months. In this forum, employees are encouraged to share a major failure, their individual learning from it, and what the organization learned. This framing for failure promotes a growth mindset at Crisis Text Line, something that is essential to solution orientation.  Nancy’s other trick?  She surrounds herself with lots of “coders,” as they are, by training, systems thinkers who are not afraid to break things and try again.  Their experience and approach to continuously improve and create fixes encourages those around them to do the same.

  1. Scale your impact – not necessarily your organization.

Lastly, Nancy reminded us that the ultimate measure of success is your impact, not the size of your organization. In the social sector, we often speak about the size of our budget or the number of members on our team as a proxy for our influence. Instead, we should be speaking about the breadth and depth of our impact, as our organization does not necessarily need to grow in size in order for our impact to scale. This concept reminded me of the traditional business concept of return on investment, but in this case the return is the social impact. Crisis Text Line defines success as reaching one billion people around the world (the social impact return) with the most efficient investment of resources. We should laud the small organizations who are able to have vast and deep impact, outsized to their budget or personnel.

Nancy’s story and insights help me to better envision my own future in the social impact ecosystem.  I cannot wait to continue to refine that vision as I hear from the other inspiring leaders of change in the CASE Executive Speaker Series this year.